Technology can reduce GPS outages from Northern Lights, researchers say

By Allen Cone
Technology can reduce GPS outages from Northern Lights, researchers say
Researchers at Bath University in England studied the relationship between the Northern Lights and Global Navigation Satellite Systems, finding how phenomenon causes outages of the systems. A photograph shows the Northern Lights, or Aurora borealis, over the city of Tromso, Norway, on October 20, 2014. Photo by Jan Morten Bjoernbakk/EPA

March 13 (UPI) -- Scientists studying the Northern Lights say they think their research will lead to new technology to reduce outages from satellite navigation systems.

Researchers at the University of Bath in England found for the first time that turbulence does not take place within the Northern Lights and instead that unknown mechanisms are responsible for the outages of Global Navigation Satellite Systems. The researchers concluded new technology can be developed to overcome these outages from the Northern Lights, also known as Aurora borelias.


"This new understanding of the mechanisms which affect GNSS outages will lead to new technology that will enable safe and reliable satellite navigation," Dr. Biagio Fort, lead researcher on the study, said in a press release Monday. Fort is a lecturerer in the Department of Electronic & Electrical Engineering at the school.

The Northern Lights, which occur at the North and South magnetic poles, are the result of collisions between gaseous particles in the Earth's atmosphere with charged particles from the sun's atmosphere.

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The research in collaboration with the European Incoherent Scatter Scientific Association observed the Northern Lights in Tromso, northern Norway, using radar and a co-located GNSS receiver in 2013.


GNSS signals identified how the Northern Lights interfere with GPS signals.

"The experiment has provided new insights into the type of structures that cause scintillation on GPS L band signals at auroral latitudes," researchers wrote in the study, which is published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Space Physics.

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"The potential impact of inaccurate GNSS signals could be severe," Forte said. "Whilst outages in mobile phones may not be life-threatening, unreliability in satellite navigations systems in autonomous vehicles or drones delivering payloads could result in serious harm to both humans and the environment."

GNSS pinpoints the geographic location of a user's receiver anywhere in the world. In the United States it is known as Global Positioning System, or GPS. Satellites are positioned at an altitude of 9,320 miles.

"With increasing dependency upon GNSS with the planned introduction of 5G networks and autonomous vehicles which rely heavily on GNSS, the need for accurate and reliable satellite navigation systems everywhere in the world has never been more critical," Forte said.

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